US employers hold very mixed views on flexible working, claims report

Glued to the desk

It’s not just companies in the UK who appear to have mixed and sometimes contradictory views on the principles of flexible working. A new study from the US based Families and Work Institute in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management has found that while more and more firms are open to the idea of working from home for permanent employees, other forms of flexible working such as job sharing, career breaks or sabbaticals to deal with personal and family issues. The 2014 National Study of Employers found that two-thirds (67 percent) of US organisations now allow employees to work from home at least some of the time, up from 50 per cent in 2008. In addition, 41 per cent of firms let workers decide their own working hours, compared to 32 per cent in 2008. However there are falls in the proportion of employers willing to let staff work flexibly in other ways.

Since 2008, the number of companies entertaining the idea of job sharing has fallen from 29 percent to 18 percent now. The proportion of organisations willing to offer employees the chance to take a career break for personal or family reasons has fallen from 64 percent to 52 percent and the number of firms willing to allow individual employees to switch to shorter hours and part time work has fallen from 41 percent to just 32 percent, although 82 percent are willing to let staff take days off at short notice to deal with emergencies and other immediate concerns.

The report’s authors believe that both of these seemingly contradictory approaches to flexible working arrangements are driven by commercial considerations. Working from home saves on real estate costs, they suggest, so firms like it. Other forms of flexible working are commercially problematic, especially as firms have been focussed on working their way out of the recession.

The report also emphasises how fond organisations remain of the idea that people should be evaluated in the physical workplace. Indeed, there has been a return to the idea that staff should be seen at work and not just in high profile cases such as that of Yahoo. In the 2008 study, 71 percent of employers believed that performance should be gauged on output rather than presence in the office. In 2014, that number had actually fallen to 64 percent.